Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with writer-director Sallas De Jager about his uproarious comedy Jonathan that deals with a dreamer and wannabe stand-up comedian who embarks on a roller coaster journey of self-discovery.
Who is Jonathan?
Jonathan is a classic underdog. He is in his late 20’s and has big aspirations to become a big time stand-up comedian. His unique simple outlook on life, combined with the fact that he has no filter between his thoughts and what comes out of his mouth, is the foundation of his stand-up comedy humour. He is unfortunately very entitled as far as life in general goes, and he enters competitions once or twice a year. When he doesn’t win, it’s never his fault and he believes that he was cheated out of his break. When we meet him in the film he is still living with his parents and his saving grace and his biggest flaw is his brutal honesty. He needs to learn to survive as an outsider and to understand that respect and success is never given to you, you have to earn it.
Describe the story in your own words…
Jonathan, a dreamer and wannabe stand-up comedian in his late 20’s, still lives with parents. After another failed open mic performance he gets drunk and crashes his father’s car on the way home. This is the last straw for his loving but fed up parents and his father kicks him out of the house. Having nowhere to go he becomes a car-guard. After a very hostile reception by the other car-guards, the eldest car-guard decides to take Johnathan under his wing and teaches him the finer art of being a car-guard and more importantly, he teaches Jonathan about life and how to survive as an outcast. Jonathan also falls in love with a girl way out of his league. Will he be able to apply the lessons learned to make peace with his family, earn the forgiveness of his mentor and win the heart of the most beautiful girl he ever met?
You mentioned that it was an opportunity that arrived at the right time in your life. Tell me about this?
I believe the experience and the lessons learned through the mistakes I made the previous five films armed me with all the tools needed to take on the responsibility of contributing to an already massive brand, and to be able to add value at the same time.
I quickly realised that this kind of action driven old school comedy is much more difficult to write and direct than anything I’ve done previously, but then the experience kicked in, and I quickly realised that the basic principals of story is the key to writing and executing the script during principal photography. By basic principals, I refer to firstly a solid story – interesting but real characters with relatable objectives – and strictly sticking to causality as far as events and the consequential actions taken by the characters. There are no grey areas in this genre.
At the start of my career I didn’t have the patience or the skill to even attempt something like this, and it was even more tough because of the fact that the main character is a household name. It therefore forced me to be creative within set boundaries of the character of Jonathan, as well as the extreme structural discipline the genre requires. Because it was such a challenge, is was also almost magical when it all came together, and that sense of job satisfaction is rare and much appreciated.
You followed Jonathan on YouTube… is this a great new resource for filmmakers looking for great ideas?
I get my inspiration from life and people and the way they behave under pressure or react to pressure situations. I don’t necessarily agree that YouTube is a great resource for filmmakers as far as ideas go. I do however feel that it is an amazing platform for young performers to build a profile and a following. When utilised smartly, it can kick start a career. Year by year the South African Film industry is growing and for us to sustain the momentum and get our films seen, we need to create stars that puts bums on seats. YouTube is definitely one of the many platforms to achieve this.
You have touched our hearts with your screenplay for Verraaiers, and broke our hearts with Free State as writer and director, now you venture into the comedy realm with Jonathan.. tell me about this transition?
The transition was not as massive as I thought it would be. I believe that I’m a storyteller. I’ve never considered myself as someone who sticks to a specific genre. I would love to make more comedies in future, as well as action movies, and another genre I would love to explore is crime dramas and psychological thrillers. I was very blessed to cut my teeth on films like Verraaiers, Free State and Roepman, because all of them forced me to really dig into studying human behaviour in familiar South African situations, at the same time to deal with universal themes. With every screenplay you learn a little more and this gives you confidence to dig a little deeper in order to explore the core of the theme and the controlling idea of the story you are telling. More importantly you learn to explore the counter idea, and you are more willing to explore the dark side, and I believe this is key in one’s quest to become a good screenwriter.
It is important for a storyteller to explore outside their comfort zone… Your views on this?
Absolutely, I think at this point in my career I began to understand the value and the importance of the years of studying story structure, master plots, and watching thousands of films to understand the application of these building blocks.
If you’re lucky enough to get the opportunities I will advise screenwriters to step out of their comfort zone every opportunity you get. My biggest fear is creative stagnation.
With your Klopjag success I am sure we can expect a musical in the future?
I will never exclude the possibility. At the moment I prefer to focus on creating music that enhances the tone and emotional journey of the characters. I love the use of music as a tool to tell stories and I’m a big fan of the master soundtrack composers, and the powerful way melodies or a well placed and chosen song can enhance the emotional connection an audience takes home after a film. Because of my background in music it helps me a lot to communicate to composers and musicians, and it definitely helps to explain what I want or to communicate what I hear of feel.
What excites you about being a filmmaker in South Africa?
To be part of a new generation of filmmakers in a developing industry excites me the most! At the moment we are still a story driven industry which allows us the rare opportunity to be able to try new things and to dream big dreams. In the rest of the world, especially in Hollywood, it is very different. They have a star driven industry which means that the popular actors in their choices of what roles they choose, are basically deciding which screenplays will become movies. I’ve simplified it immensely now, but that the core truth of it. In South Africa you can still get funding for a well written screenplay with a good story without having to attach A-list stars to you film. We should treasure this while it lasts.
The world has also grown smaller and South African films, like Free State, have garnered much success internationally? Your views?
Talent and fresh ideas are our biggest strengths at this point, I believe we are on the brink of showcasing this on a more regular basis at international film festivals. It took us a good part of ten years to get to a point where South African films are screened at festivals. Unfortunately these festival selections do not always lead to distribution after the festival screenings. And in that lies our biggest weakness at the moment. I think we need more education and assistance in terms of festival strategies as well as understanding the international film markets. These are specialised fields, and at the moment producers and directors are taking the responsibility for this too. This shouldn’t be the situation. We need to train people who specialise in turning festival selections into sales on a regular basis. This key skill is seriously lacking in our industry and it’s something that needs to be remedied as soon as possible. Up to this point institutions like the NFVF and DTI focused mostly, and rightly so, on selling South Africa as a location and attracting productions to come and shoot their films here, but I think the next step should be to find a balance in terms of attracting productions, and actually selling South African content and building an audience for South African stories on TV and VOD platforms in the rest of the world, which will in time lead to proper theatrical distribution in other territories outside Africa.
This means that South African filmmakers must stop thinking about making a local film, but rather one the world wants to experience…. Your views on this.
Yes, but at the same time No. It ties in to my answer to the previous question. The focus in my opinion should be to tell authentic South African stories that deal with universal themes and relatable characters, dealing with universally relatable problems. The moment we master this on a regular basis, we give ourselves a fair chance to kick open a place for ourselves in the international arena. A movie that I always refer to, too illustrate this, is the British Film “The Full Monty”. This film is authentically British and made for a British audience, no big US A-list star, but it tells the universal story of a group of men who needed to get their self confidence back. It made truckloads of money all over the world and it grew the audience for British films and gave momentum for a lot stories set in Britain for the following 10 years after it’s release.
The future for screenwriters in South Africa is also loaded with potential… your views…
I have to agree with that. We have fresh voices and new stories. These are worth gold in places like Hollywood. It is unfortunately quite tough at the moment to make a decent living from screenwriting which means that out of necessity, focus is on volume instead of quality. The simple reason is you need to eat, pay rent etc. I cannot stress the importance of proper development funding enough. I believe we have a lot of skilled writers, but they need to be empowered by being able to write under less financial and time pressure than is the case at the moment. It will benefit the whole industry. The silver lining is that there are a few people who realised this and things are going to change.
What do think are 3 traits of a great screenwriter?
The ability to listen to and then to analyse both sides of an argument and only then form an opinion.
What do you hope audiences will get from a Jonathan encounter?
My brief from my fellow producers was to get back to basics. Film is in its purest form, escapism and I honestly believe that for 90 minutes the audience will be able to forget about everything else and go on this journey with Jonathan and laugh their asses off while doing so!
So many filmmakers seem to forget that films are about escapism and entertainment….
Absolutely and I must admit, I myself was guilty in this regard, but I feel over the last two of three years I’m getting closer to a balance between the beauty and the power of film, and the entertainment value. I suppose we’ll keep on learning and keep on trying!
What’s next for you?
I’m working on the script for the second Jonathan that will be shot somewhere towards the middle of 2017 and as always, I’ve got a few other ideas cooking…we’ll talk about that next time.